March 15 – the Ides of March – is the day voters in the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche riding will go to the polls to choose their new MLA.
Premier Jason Kenney waited until the very last day possible to call a by-election to replace former MLA Laila Goodridge, who resigned six months ago to run in last year’s federal election. Waiting this late to call a normal by-election would be very unusual, but this is no normal by-election.
United Conservative Party members in the northern Alberta riding rejected Kenney’s favoured nomination candidate in favour of Brian Jean, the former leader of the Wildrose Party and former MLA and MP who is openly calling on Kenney to resign.
Jean dropped out of provincial politics in 2018, resigning as MLA for the former Fort McMurray-Conklin riding when he was not given a spot in Kenney’s shadow cabinet. But retirement didn’t suit him, and it wasn’t long before he was regularly chirping at Kenney on social media and in the newspaper editorial pages.
He now has the UCP nomination in a normally safe UCP riding and he is openly organizing and fundraising in an effort to dump Kenney at the April 9 leadership review in Red Deer.
With no pro-Kenney candidates on the March 15 ballot, don’t expect the Premier or any cabinet ministers to be visiting the riding in the next 28-days.
Rachel Notley‘s NDP have nominated Fort McMurray school teacher and past candidate Ariana Mancini as their choice in the by-election. And while Mancini remains an underdog in this race, she has been joined over the past few months by a steady stream of NDP MLAs travelling north to visit the riding.
Edmonton-Whitemud NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi was in Fort McMurray today for Mancini’s campaign launch.
While the NDP have been riding high in the poll and are flush with cash, this will be a tough riding for them to win. The UCP earned 66 per cent of the vote in 2019 and the last time voters in this area elected a New Democrat was in 1986, when Leo Piquette won in Athabasca-Lac La Biche.
But, never say never. By-elections can sometimes produce unpredictable results.
While the Kenney-Jean rivalry is the main theme going into the by-election, the candidacy of another former Wildrose Party leader makes this race even more unusual.
Former Wildrose Party leader Paul Hinman now leads and is running in the by-election for the Wildrose Independence Party – a party that not only promotes Alberta separatism from Canada, but, judging from its social media feeds, embraces a vast range of right-wing internet conspiracy theories.
The grandson of former provincial treasurer Edgar Hinman, the younger Hinman was the Alberta Alliance MLA for Cardston-Taber-Warner from 2004 to 2008 before surprising political watchers by winning a 2009 by-election in posh Calgary-Glenmore. He led the Alliance and Wildrose Alliance from 2005 until resigning in 2009 to make way for Danielle Smith.
Hinman endorsed Jean for the Wildrose Party leadership in 2015 and Kenney for the UCP leadership in 2017 after cancelling his own bid to lead the new party.
Now he leads the separatist Wildrose Independence Party, which was created by a merger of the Freedom Conservative Party and the Wexit Alberta group in July 2020.
But that’s not where the Wildrose blast-from-the-past ends in this by-election!
Running under the banner of the right-wing Alberta Advantage Party is party leader Marilyn Burns.
Burns was a candidate for the Alberta Alliance Party in Stony Plain in 2004 and ran against Hinman for the Alliance leadership way back in 2005. She was later part of a small group of Wildrosers who campaigned against the merger with the Progressive Conservative Party before helping found the Alberta Advantage Party.
Burns led the Alberta Advantage Party into the 2019 election and resigned soon after amid a leadership challenge and announced plans to run for the position again. She now appears to once again be party leader.
The second separatist candidate in the by-election, the Independence Party of Alberta‘s Steven Mellott, has never led or tried to lead the Wildrose Party (as far as I am aware).
The other parties have yet to name their candidates.
I think this is going to be a wild ride, folks.